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Queer 80s: Cinema on the Brink of Global Change

Wed 5 – Wed 26 Jun

Presenting ground-breaking movies from across the globe, as part of the Barbican’s Pride season this summer, Queer 80s: Cinema on the Brink of Global Change invites audiences to time travel back to a decade when LGBTQ+ representation and creativity on screen thrived.  

Throughout the 80s, queer filmmakers across the world seized the camera to tell new stories in different ways with provocative and unapologetic depictions of LGBTQ+ people making it to the big screen. 

The world was on the edge of transformation. Borders were about to shift (three of the films in this film programme originate from countries that would not exist beyond 1991), the work to end Apartheid in South Africa continued while - even as archaic laws around homosexuality began to be revoked - the Aids crisis led to a terrible wave of homophobia. 

Alex Davidson, Barbican Cinema Curator, says: “Following on from the success of last year’s Queer 90s season, I’m excited to reflect on the preceding decade, when change was in the air, and bring these 1980s LGBTQ+ films, most of which hardly ever screen in the UK, to the Barbican cinemas 

“With films from the last years of the Brazilian dictatorship, South African Apartheid and the former countries of the Soviet Union and East & West Germany, these remarkable films, including a wild and wonderful take on Virginia’s Woolf’s Orlando, a gorgeous Azerbaijani folk tale by a filmmaker jailed for his sexuality, an outrageous, gay, erotic satire from Japan, and Almodóvar’s cunning gender play in Law of Desire, are emblematic of a world on the brink of massive change.” 

  • Freak Orlando (West Germany 1981) + ScreenTalk with Ulrike Ottinger Wed 5 Jun 
  • Beautiful Mystery (Japan 1983) + introduction by Tony Rayns Thu 6 Jun 
  • Beyond Gravity (New Zealand 1988) + other Gay Shorts from New Zealand + introduction by Daniel Theophanous – Sat 8 Jun  
  • The Farewell (Sweden-Finland 1982) + introduction by Mekella Broomberg  Sun 9 Jun   
  • Radical Defiance: Queer Brazilian Super-8 Shorts 1982-3 + introduction Wed 12 Jun 
  • Tongues Untied (US 1989) + introduction by Rikki Beadle-Blair and live poetry  Thu 13 Jun 
  • Ashik Kerib (Soviet Union 1988) + introduction by Michael Brooke Tue 16 Jun 
  • Law of Desire + introduction (Spain 1987) - Thu 20 Jun 

  • Quest for Love (South Africa 1988) + introduction by Tara Brown – Sat 22 Jun 
  • Coming Out (East Germany 1989) + ScreenTalk with actor Dirk Kummer Wed 26 Jun 

Queer 80s: Cinema on the Brink of Global Change is bookended by two films from West and East Germany. The season opens with Ulrike Ottinger’s Freak Orlando, from West Germany, a bold and bizarre take on Virgina Woolf’s gender-changing hero, which came at the beginning of a wave of astonishing LGBTQ+ works made in the last decade of the country’s existence. Ulrike Ottinger will attend Opening Night for a ScreenTalk. 
The season closes with Coming Out, one of the last films made in the former East Germany which premiered there on 9 November 1989, the same night that the Berlin Wall came down. Directed by Heiner Carow, an established filmmaker from the former GDR, this is a powerful story about a teacher’s sexual awakening and self-acceptance. Following the film there will be a ScreenTalk with actor Dirk Kummer, hosted by Timothy Phillips 

In Spain, the cultural movement Movida – which took place following the death of Franco – was well underway when Almodóvar cast cisgender actor Maura as a trans character and trans actor Bibiana Fernández as her cisgender niece in his twisted gay romance Law of Desire. 

Sweden and Finland paved the way to greater LGBTQ+ equality in the 1980s and the repressive 1930s society depicted in The Farewell shows just how far they had come. A gay woman struggles to cope in the repressive home of her bourgeois father on the eve of WWII in Helsinki, in Tuija-Maija Niskanen’s haunting period drama.  
Gay women’s lives are also central in Helena Nogueira’s rarely screened lesbian romance Quest for Love, made in South Africa, where it was banned for its anti-Apartheid stance and gay storyline. The film is critical of the then government policy, and it is remarkable that it got made in the last two years of Apartheid. 
From Japan comes Beautiful Mystery, a 1983 Japanese ‘pink film’ (used to describe a type of Japanese film with explicit erotic content). Genji Nakamura’s outrageous gay erotic comedy satirises author and nationalist Yukio Mishima and is an irreverent take down of nationalist hysteria and po-faced patriotism.  
New Zealand decriminalised same sex activity in 1986 and just two years later came Beyond Gravity, a charming romance between a neurotic gay man who meets a cocky Italian man. Both leads share a cute chemistry, and the sexual frankness of their relationship is surprising for a film of this era. This screens alongside two gay Kiwi shorts Singing Seas and My First Suit 

Shot in Azerbaijan, Ashik Kerib is the last completed film by Sergei Parajanov, a director jailed for his sexuality. An Azeri-Turkish love story about a wandering minstrel forced to roam the world for 1001 nights to win the hand of his beloved, the film is a glorious tribute to Azeri culture, filled with music and joy, and although any queerness is kept at a subtextual level, it is a feast for the senses and a fitting swan song for this talented, unique director. 
Three powerful Brazilian short films explore queer lives in the last years of the military dictatorship in Radical Defiance: Queer Brazilian Super-8 Shorts 1982-3, which will be screened in the UK for the first time. These films denounced the conservativism and religious oppression and celebrated gay lives at a time of intense, machismo-fuelled prejudice. 
Tongues Untied, Marlon Riggs’ classic essay film is an intense depiction of the Black, gay American experience during the 1980s and is an arresting mix of documentary and performance. Riggs died five years after the film’s release, but his legacy lives on, and the imagery of Tongues Untied can be seen in the works of filmmakers such as Isaac Julien and Barry Jenkins. This screening will be introduced by Rikki Beadle-Blair and includes live poetry. 
Queer 80s: Cinema on the Brink of Global Change is part of Barbican’s wider Pride season, celebrating queer representation in music, film and visual arts across the Centre this summer.  

Season images are available to download here.